A Feminist Goes to the Hospital
InA Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander comments on the idiocy of
trying to nurse people to health by locking them up in the land of the
sick, but a visit to an actual hospital makes the point more vividly
than logical argument ever could. The modern hospital is a place of
nightmares, even visiting I cannot manage to spend more than an hour
here without beginning to go insane. I cannot imagine how anyone ever
An island of white in an ocean of green, the modern hospital’s
landscaping dangles the promise of verdant beauty while its insides are
all white sterility. The hallways of identical doors twist and turn
around so much that it’s impossible to find any room that isn’t
carefully numbered, even after several attempts to try to discern the
building’s layout. The muted colors and dreary duplication do not reward
such attempts at investigation, or even mere attempts at life.
It seems like the building itself is ill. Odd pieces are blocked off
with white sheets, larger ones with completely opaque walls. Bizarre
machines with large tubes line the hallways, apparently standing in for
broken parts of the building’s innards, while workmen wander around
attempting to treat the other symptoms.
The rooms themselves are monstrous cells, tiny boxes with doors that
stay open and walls that fight any attempts at individuality or privacy.
The size makes entertaining guests awkward, while the lack of activities
makes loneliness unbearable.
Were the large sign reading “Hospital” to go missing, one might easily
mistake the facility as one for torture: men whose clothes have been
replaced by dreary gowns slowly wander the halls in dreary stupor, their
battered faces making them appear as if they have been badly beaten.
They are not permitted to escape.
Were one, under such amazing conditions, to try to mount an attempt at
fruitful work, it would quickly fail. Even assuming one was able to
muster the energy to focus, the noises through the thin walls and
unclosed doors would quickly distract. The beeps and buzzes from the
assorted machinery would frustrate to no end. The screeching
announcements from the loudspeakers would fast derail any trains of
thought. And if one manages to get past all these things, well, it will
only be a short while until a nurse or orderly comes to insert another
needle or run some other humiliating and invasive task.
And so one simply watches the seconds tick away, as in some odd form of
Chinese water torture. Sometimes the pain is made more vivid by the
combination of very real physical discomfort, which incapacity makes
difficult to alleviate. Itchiness, dirtiness, and restlessness are the
orders of the day, with powerlessness coming in to make sure the others
Ostensibly this place is meant to cure things, the unimpeachable
knowledge of science and the clean sterility of the building meant to
combine to induce health. But, as before in history, the cure may be
worse than the disease.Robert Karen has documentedhow early concerns
about antisepsis led hospitals to keep children far away
from their parents. The result, as was plain to anyone paying attention,
was severe psychological trauma for the children, who assumed their
parents had abandoned them, leading to mental problems that last a
While modern hospitals induce problems apparently less severe, they are
still problems. Again, the doctors that are supposed to help the
patients seem less concerned about the patients as people than
bodies, things to be measured and operated upon, puzzles to solve,
problems to fix. They do not tell the patient what is being done to
them, do not reap the benefits that could be received by engaging them
in the search for the solution, but instead only share knowledge when
forced by law and precedent, preferring to keep the real details private
among the priesthood of doctors and nurses.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English notehow well-off women of the
pre-feminist era suffered from mysterious symptoms of inactivity, a
condition they diagnose as the psychological result of their inactivity
and powerlessness; society entrusted them with no responsibility and
so their minds collapsed from lack of active use.
While women have made great strides in the years since, for many the
problem is still quite real. And laid up in a hospital, with domestic
and childrearing tasks undoable, they may find the responsibilities they
had fade away, their condition stripped back to that of their afflicted
And so patriarchical society and patriarchical medicine combine to strip
all vestiges of humanity away. No freedom, no responsibility; no
movements, no tasks; no privacy, no thought. The person becomes the body
that the doctors treat them as.
Friends and family may try to visit, in an attempt to bring a bit of
their outside world into this sterile place, but the awkward situation
strains even the best relationships. Friendly conversations become hard
when one party is lying in bed moaning, while strained family
relationships are stretched further, surfacing their most disgustingly
dysfunctional aspects. Family members, whatever else they may
accomplish, somehow learn the remarkable skill of knowing just what to
do to drive you up the wall. And as the hospital environment (along with
the psychological stress of seeing you trapped in it) drives them insane
as well, their presence quickly becomes more curse than blessing.
I’ve never seen an environment so effective at inducing such severe
psychological pain. After just an hour, I feel like screaming, tearing,
pounding, killing. I go “out of my mind” and yearn to get out of my body
as well, running around in circles, pounding against the floor, with not
even exhaustion appearing to cure me.
It needn’t be this way, for there is a cure: the joy of life. Sanity can
be restored through attempts at music, channeling the fundamental
disorder into form and elegance, focusing the energy toward good. Art,
especially the art of nature, as Alexander suggested, is likely another
cure. But hospitals aren’t built for that.
Bonus:Life in the Hospital
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September 27, 2006